How Martin Luther King Jr. Interacted With Children

I have recently been re-reading Barbara Bennett Woodhouse’s excellent 2008 book on the history of children’s rights, Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate. One of Woodhouse’s chapters, Chapter 7, is dedicated to children’s experiences during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In that chapter, Woodhouse discusses at length how Martin Luther King Jr. interacted with and treated children. I found those interactions to be both powerful as well as adorable, so I wanted to share them with you. Here is an excerpt:

The word pictures [children] paint of King include telling details suggesting an active outreach to children. Many children and teens recalled the timbre of his voice, the personal notice he took of them, and the comfort of his presence…

Fred Taylor was thirteen when the Birmingham bus boycott began. Here is how he describes King’s effect on him: “He would talk about the fact that you are somebody and you are important. This was compared to my orientation of being put down or told, ‘Boy, you are not going to be anything.’ A classic example was people would say, ‘You knotty-head boy, why don’t you sit down.’ But when King started talking, he’d say, ‘You are somebody.’ And that began to rub off on me. It was right during the boycott that I began to have a different assessment of myself as an individual and to feel my sense of self worth. Not only did it affect me, but I began to look at my family and how the whole community related to them.”

Youngest among the marchers was Sheyann Webb, who began marching at age eight. In 1979, she and her friend Rachel Nelson told their story to Frank Sikora, in a book titled Selma Lord Selma. A photograph from those days shows Sheyann in a ruffled skirt, the smallest in a human chain of protestors. In one of her earliest memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, he saw the little girls and asked them what they wanted. They answered shyly ‘freedom,’ but he kept acting as if he couldn’t hear them until they finally shouted the word as loud as they could and dissolved into giggles. ‘I heard you that time,’ he says. ‘You want freedom? Well, so do I.’ We got to be friends from then on. Everytime he’d see us he’d play that little game with us, asking what we wanted, pretending he couldn’t hear what we’d say until we were shouting at the top of our lungs, ‘Freedom!'” (p. 147-149)

Also, were you aware that, during the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, “an estimated ten thousand Birmingham children were arrested and jailed” (p. 144, emphasis in original)? Let that sink in: Ten thousand children were arrested and jailed for protesting segregation in the United States—and only sixty years ago!